Uncut Gems

 

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The Safdie brothers take no prisoners in a film that unleashes the talents of Adam Sandler.

 
Uncut Gems  

Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield and Adam Sandler

 

This new work from the brothers Josh and Benny Safdie builds on the tone set by its predecessor, 2017’s Good Time. It does so by adopting the advice in This Is Spinal Tap to turn it up to eleven. The result is a movie surely destined to become a cult classic, the kind of film that some audiences will find alien to their taste but which others will positively adore. It is in fact easy enough to define what makes Uncut Gems so distinctive and to appreciate that on its own terms it is very well done. At its centre is a stand-out tour-de-force from Adam Sandler in a role that dominates so completely that listening to him deliver his lines feels akin to being present at a solo evening of stand-up comedy. But, if the energy that he unleashes encourages that comparison, it also needs to be stressed that Sandler in the role of one Howard Ratner captures the character from the inside. These qualities help the film to sustain its running time of 135 minutes, but even so the extent to which individual viewers will take to the material will vary considerably.

 

A short prologue set in Ethiopia in 2010 reveals miners digging out an opal stone but we quickly move on two years to be plunged into Howard Ratner’s world. He is a Manhattan shop owner who deals in jewellery and the opal has just come into his possession ready to be auctioned, an event that should make him a huge profit and enable him to pay off a debt to his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian). This is crucial because despite their relationship Arno is quite ready to employ thugs to beat up Howard if no payment is received. Yet everything in Howard’s life is influenced by the fact that he is a born gambler: he plays for high stakes both in his private life (despite being married to Dinah (Idina Menzel) he is chancing an affair with his assistant, Julia played by Julia Fox) and in his business deals. It is in this latter sphere that problems soon rise. They start when he unwisely lets the opal out of his care and lends it to one of his important customers, a basketball star who regards the stone as a good luck charm (this role is played very well by an actual sportsman, Kevin Garnett, who gives his name to the character).

 

From this point on the plot offers a series of twists and turns in the events that follow and, even if they share the blend of drama and near-absurdist humour that characterised Good Time and made it so individual, they are in themselves par for the course rather than anything totally unexpected. If, despite that, Uncut Gems feels so fresh, that very fact underlines the difference between this movie and the recent release Waves. In that film the way in which it bombards the audience distracts from a worthwhile story whereas here the deliberately frenetic approach is the core of the film, its very essence. It’s no wonder that those who admire this work liken it to a roller coaster ride since that is the kind of exhilaration that it offers to those who gladly buy into it. In order to do that it helps if you take a delight in the use of strong language and are not put off by early scenes in which the speed of the often overlapping dialogue is given precedence over getting going with the storyline. You will either feel on board or not regardless of the skill involved.

 

When reviewing Good Time I described it as being not quite Marmite, but nearly. Since Uncut Gems takes the style of the Safdie brothers to a new level, the verdict this time must be that it is Marmite - and then some.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards, Jonathan Aranbayev, Noa Fisher, Abel Tesfaye, Aren Topian, Jacob Dylan Igielski, Paloma Elsesser, Hayley Gates, The Weeknd, John Amos and the voices of Tilda Swinton and Natasha Lyonne.

 

Dir Josh and Benny Safdie, Pro Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Sebastian Bear-McClard, Screenplay Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, Ph Darius Khondji, Pro Des Sam Lisenco, Ed Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie, Music Daniel Lopatin, Costumes Miyako Bellizzi.

 

A24/Elara Pictures/Safdie Brothers-Netflix.
135 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 10 January 2020. Cert. 15.